Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Grand Inquisitor

For all the sound and fury kicked up about Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor scene ("It will shake your faith," promised my professor) I found it thoroughly unconvincing--almost beside the point, even. Perhaps it's because I don't have much faith to shake, but you'd think that would make me a particularly receptive member of the audience. For those unfamiliar with the argument: Christ reappears in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition, starts performing miracles, and is immediately taken into custody by the Grand Inquisitor and sentenced to death. During the pre-trial, post-sentence interrogation (hey, it was the Inquisition), the latter asks the former why he created a faith utterly disconsonant with human nature; why, when the devil tempted him in the wilderness, Christ didn't turn the stones into bread and agree to rescue by flights of angels by leaping from the roof of the temple. The Inquisitor has an answer: "Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and didst crave faith given freely, not based on a miracle." In other words, men will follow anyone if given the proper formula of signs (and bread), but Christ misunderstands this facet of human nature and it is the job of the Church to "correct" his work and found its faith for the masses upon the principles of "miracle, mystery, and authority." Miracles always enjoy this treatment in Dostoevsky novels, as a kind of ultimate paradox of belief: if you ask for a miracle, implicit in the very asking is your need for proof, and thus your demonstration that you lack the perfect faith required for the performance of a miracle. The Grand Inquisitor's line of questioning challenges this formulation of the problem by deeming it impossible for the majority of mankind to grasp. They need miracles, he says. They cannot follow "freely," without the compulsion of the miracle to cause them to sit up and pay attention.

To my mind, this is a curious definition of "freedom," one which may have something to do with the etymology of Russian. Dostoevsky throughout this passage uses the word свобода and its variants. This means freedom in a very particular sense, though--as in freedom from something. (One of the first things you learn in Russian is "что вы делаете в свободное время?"/What do you do in your free time?", as in "time free from activity.") But there's another word for freedom in Russian, and it signifies freedom in the political sense of the word in which most Westerners and Western European languages mean it: "воля," sometimes translated as "will." The connotation of the latter is more positive: the franchise, the statement or exertion of one's preferences, etc. The former is rather narrowly "freedom from compulsion." Leave aside for the moment that Dostoevsky's definition of "compulsion" appears to be "evidence" and consider how well the two definitions of freedom equate. They don't. One means "freedom from outside influence" but the other means something more like "the activities associated with freedom." свобода is very nearly the absence of activity. So where a Westerner would shake her head at "freedom" as a state of adhering to a religion in the absence of evidence, it makes perfect sense in Russian.

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Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 9:02 AM